I don’t believe in perfection, but were someone to really press me to name what I consider to be the most perfect musical ever made, I wouldn’t hesitate a second before placing Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis at the top of any list. An unpretentious gem of a movie that's small in scale, meager of plot, modest in ambition, and blissfully devoid of any of those so-called “sure-fire” elements associated with most major movie musicals; Meet Me in St. Louis is nevertheless a nonstop, smile-from-ear-to-ear delight that features more moments of genuine magic than all eight Harry Potter movies, combined.
|Judy Garland as Esther Smith|
|Margaret O'Brien as Tootie Smith|
|Lucille Bremer as Rose Smith|
Setting a tone of lighthearted innocence and old-world charm that Minnelli captivatingly (not to mention, miraculously) manages to sustain throughout the film, Meet Me in St. Louis opens with an introduction to the members of the Smith household that’s a study in cinematic economy and ingenuity. Practically a musical number in itself in the way narrative exposition and character information are seamlessly interwoven in a choreographed introduction, we first meet the level-headed lady of the house Anna (Mary Astor); no-nonsense housekeeper Katie (Marjorie Main); college-bound only son Alonzo “Lon” Jr. (Henry H. Daniels); next-to-youngest daughter Agnes (Joan Carroll); grandpa (Harry Davenport), a collector of hats and firearms; Esther (Garland), the romantic pragmatist; eldest daughter Rose (Lucille Bremer); precocious (and downright weird) youngest daughter, Tootie (O’Brien): and, last but not least, Alonzo, the quintessential father figure (Leon Ames).
|You and I|
Mary Astor as Anna Smith / Leon Ames as Alonzo Smith
We accompany the Smith family throughout the year as they weather sundry domestic and romantic crises, the story's chief conflict, such as it is, being the zestful anticipation surrounding the opening of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition World’s Fair vs. the dispiriting news of the impending uprooting of the family to New York City.
|Boy Meets Girl|
Tom Drake as John Truett / Henry J Daniels Jr. as Alonzo "Lon" Smith Jr
The uncluttered simplicity that is the screenplay by Irving Brecher & Fred F. Finklehoff, (the DVD commentary makes mention of the excising of a superfluous subplot) is based on the largely autobiographical stories of author Sally Benson. Stories first serialized under the title “5135 Kensington” in The New Yorker in 1941, expanded and novelized later in 1942 as “Meet Me in St Louis.”
I’ve never read the novel, but as a fan of Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (on whose screenplay Benson was a contributor) Benson seems to have a disarmingly quirky eye when it comes to family. Meet Me in St. Louis is funnier than most films of its ilk, largely due to a great many wonderful throwaway comic lines and the characters being afforded humanizing traits like vanity (“It would’ve been nice to be a brunette.” “You should have been. Nothing could’ve stopped us. Think how we’d look going out together, you with your raven black hair and me with my auburn.”), self-seriousness (“I hate, loathe, despise and abominate money!” “You also spend it.”), precocity (“You’re nothing less than a murderer! You might have killed dozens of people!” “Oh, Rose, you’re so stuck-up!”), and eccentricity (“The ice man saw a drunkard get shot last night and the blood squirted out three feet!” – that would be Tootie again).
All of this is tunefully buoyed by a lovely musical score comprised of period standards and four original songs composed by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine.
|I've seen it a million times, but Judy singing the Oscar-nominated|
The Trolley Song is always such a thrill to watch
A treat for the eyes and ears, Meet Me in St. Louis never fails to win me over with its charm and heart, but I really get a kick out of its character-based comedy. And while many other films have tried to duplicate its formula (the rather dreadful Summer Holiday- 1948), they only wind up getting the material trappings right. Meet Me in St. Louis—from its talented cast and their inimitable chemistry, to the creative artists behind the scenes, to the degree of loving care lavished on this entire production by Vincente Minnelli and producer Arthur Freed (who co-wrote the lovely song "You and I" and dubbed Leon Ames' singing voice)—is a film that remains in a class by itself.
|Marjorie Main as Katie|
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
From all this gushing praise you’d think Meet Me in St. Louis was a movie I’ve been in love with all my life. On the contrary, I saw the film in its entirety for the first time in 2007. My avoidance of Meet Me in St. Louis for so years stemmed from an assumption on my part that it was just another one of those aggressively quaint, synthetically folksy period musicals that tend to cause me to break out in hives (think The Music Man or Hello, Dolly!). Nothing wears me down faster than hardened show biz pros barnstorming their way through cloying depictions of homespun simplicity.
But of course, it’s within this very arena that most critics contend (and I agree) that Vincent Minnelli scores his greatest triumph. In convincing the actors not to play down to the material, to treat the characters, dialogue, and situations seriously, he infuses this gossamer-light fairy tale with genuine warmth of emotion. The result is a sincerely sweet and touching family movie devoid of the usual mawkishness and sentimentality.
|The entire "Long-Distance Phone Call" sequence is hilarious.|
A favorite scene in a film loaded with standout sequences
Considerable assist is given by the Oscar-nominated screenplay (Meet Me in St Louis was nominated for four, winning only a special juvenile Oscar from O'Brien) which consistently keeps clichés at bay by subverting anticipated payoffs with unexpected twists. Every time a scene threatens to become too sentimental or hackneyed, some bit of business or dialogue is introduced to wrest the proceedings back to something amusing or emotionally honest. This is especially true of the two youngest Smith girls, Agnes and Tootie; angelic of face but mischievous and possessed of extravagantly gruesome imaginations (Agnes, after being told [in jest] that her pet cat has been harmed: “Oh, if you killed her I’ll kill you! I’ll stab you to death in your sleep, then I’ll tie your body to two wild horses until you’re pulled apart!”).
What I think appeals to me most is Meet Me in St. Louis’ refreshing lack of schmaltz. Where a less thoughtful film might have the characters express their feelings through manipulative emotional outbursts and maudlin displays designed to elicit a sentimental response from the audience, I’m impressed by the way the closeness of the Smith family is illustrated in the ways they treat one another, and not by the voicing of false-sounding bromides.
|This beautifully composed shot is a testament to Minnelli's painterly eye. The detailed production design and eye-popping Technicolor cinematography only add to Meet Me in St. Louis' enduring appeal|
1) When Rose’s much-anticipated long-distant call turns out to be a bust, I’m always so charmed by how Ester rescues her sister from embarrassment by putting a positive spin on the events.
2) Instead of opting for the overworked device of having two sisters vie for the attentions of the same man, I like how Rose encourages Esther to strike up an acquaintance with the boy next door.
3) The bond of family theme is reinforced by how quickly Esther puts aside her feelings for John Truett and is ready to go to battle when she believes he has harmed Tootie.
4) The most touching (for me) is the tender way the mother, in spite of being upset by the news of uprooting to New York, kisses her husband and, in effect, reaffirms her affection by playing him a love song. Multiple viewings of this scene reveal a plethora of little intimacies and routines of family togetherness enacted in the background. It’s no small wonder that so many people consider Meet Me in St. Louis’ Autumn sequence (combining the Halloween and move to New York announcement scenes) to be the strongest in the film.
I have a bit of an aversion to the trite, artificial sentimentality of "wholesome" family programming like The Brady Bunch and Father Knows Best (Hazel is another matter...that Shirley Booth can reduce me to tears in an instant, even in a sitcom), and I flat-out reject the alternative trend which asks me to find snarky, wise-ass children to be adorable. That's why Meet Me in St. Louis is such a marvel. Minnelli & Co. found the magic formula to get me to care about a family that genuinely cares about one another.
|Grandpa schools Tootie & Agnes on the finer points of flinging flour|
into the faces of victims on Halloween
|I'm not sure I'd trust anyone who was immune to the absolute |
adorableness of Esther's crush on neighbor John Truett
The cast of Meet Me in St Louis could hardly be better. Ensemble acting at its finest, with the standout performances only serving to add luster to the already glowing efforts of the rest of the troupe. I’m partial to the delectably neurotic Margaret O’Brien (I always crack up when in one scene, out of the blue, apropos of nothing, Tootie announces plans to start digging a tunnel to a neighbor's terrace for the express purpose of grabbing her leg when she walks in her garden), but lovely Lucille Bremer has many fine moments (“The plans have been changed!”). Everybody's favorite dad, Leon Ames, the master of confounded exasperation, is solid as always. I’m citing these particulars, but the truth is that every single character in the film is exceptionally well-cast. The result is that we not only like the Smith family and care what happens to them, we appreciate why they feel so strongly for their town and friends.
|The Smith Family|
Depending on the source, any number of people have claimed responsibility for casting the reluctant Judy Garland in this, my favorite of her non-Oz roles, but the who doesn't matter so much as trying to imagine what this film would be like without her. Even if everything remained exactly as it is, without Garland I'm 100% certain the result would merely be one of those disposably competent, workaday musicals MGM churned out with regularity in its time. Judy Garland is the element that makes this film magic, and it's amazing to me that she was overlooked come Oscar time. People don't tend to think of vocal performances as acting, but just check out the variance in Garland's singing of "The Boy Next Door" contrasted with the performance she gives during "The Trolley Song" and ultimately, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Were one to regard each of these unforgettable moments as a dramatic scene, scenes Garland commands and puts over with touching sincerity and depth of feeling...well, Meryl Streep and Cate Blanchett would both have to concede they're not in her league.
|Striking a perfect balance between spunk and youthful innocence ("I've worked all my life to be a senior!"), Judy Garland's Esther Smith is a testament to her uniquely accessible and likable star quality|
THE STUFF OF FANTASY
I'm always taken a little aback when I realize just how few musical numbers there are in Meet Me in St Louis. It always feels like wall-to-wall music! One listen to the score of the 1989 Broadway adaptation of the film, expanded by at least eight more songs by the same composers (and in which we learn Tootie's name is Sarah), and you're likely to come away with a better appreciation for the virtues of brevity.
|Under the Bamboo Tree|
I've written before (in reference to the dull soirees in every version of The Great Gatsby I've ever seen) that parties in movies rarely ever look to be much fun. The going away house party the Smiths throw for brother Lon is the exception. This lively, well-staged sequence features a clever reworking of "Skip to My Lou" and of course, the cute Margaret O'Brien / Judy Garland duet, "Under the Bamboo Tree."
|Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas|
THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Like the character of Lon Smith, I grew up as the only boy in a household of four sisters (hence my desire to escape to the movies every chance I got), only in the pecking order of age, I was where Agnes would be. My earliest memories of my family, before my parents divorced in 1967, have a veneer of nostalgia surrounding them that takes on more and more of the shimmering Technicolor glow of Meet Me in St. Louis the older I get.
The youthful quirks of my sisters stand out in my mind: One had her room plastered with posters of the Beatles; another was part of a neighborhood girl's singing group, modeling themselves on The Supremes; one sister was drawn to anything artistic, and the youngest seemed to be in constant telepathic communication with the family dog. My parents stand out in my mind as these two perfect problem-solvers. It seems there was nothing you could come to them with that they couldn't fix, whether it be the strap on a roller skate, or the certainty there was a monster hiding in the bedroom closet when the lights went out.
When we were that young, it felt like we were indeed a unit, looking out for one another, the feelings of love, concern, and companionship all melding together under the instinctual, unexamined union called family.
Any sense of accuracy in my memories of Christmases, picnics, and birthday parties, is forever lost in the alchemic process which turns that which can no longer be accurately retrieved into that which we need it to be. Both of my parents have since passed away, my sisters no longer speak to one another, and the success of my current (isolated) relationship with each of my siblings is firmly rooted in my living several hundred miles away from all of them.
The word "family" should appear in dictionaries right next to the word "imperfect" because that's what they are (even the Smith family left St. Louis for New York in real life). But growing older has shown me that familial love, equally imperfect, can be incredibly durable, flexible, forgiving, and remarkably impervious to time, distance, and the holding of grudges.
When I watch Meet Me in St Louis, I know I'm looking at a vision of family life that never existed anywhere, at any time, ever. But this movie, like a fairy tale or my own hazy, half-remembered, half-idealized, wish-fulfillment memories of my childhood and family; makes me believe, if only for 113-minutes, perfection is possible. And that's what dreams are for.
|"I can't believe it. Right here where we live. Right here in St. Louis."|
The one clear advantage to it taking me so long getting around to seeing Meet Me in St. Louis is that it ultimately afforded me the unforgettable opportunity of seeing it for the first time in the presence of an audience at one of Los Angles' great restored movie houses. The Palace Theater in downtown Los Angeles was built in 1911.
Not only was it a thrill to see this classic on the big screen and experience the collective audience response (applause and huge laughs throughout, and not a dry eye in the house by fadeout) but getting to be inside this magnificent theater was a wholly unforgettable experience.
In 1989, Meet Me in St. Louis was (as is the trend these days) adapted for the Broadway stage. It was nominated for four Tony Awards and looks absolutely insufferable.
A photograph of the actual 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition